Working Cover & Title
My current work in progress is another murder mystery. I began the novel in late September, but it’s shaping up quickly. Unedited drafts of the back cover blurb and the first chapter follow. I’d love your thoughts. Please leave a comment, and let me know what you think.
Out for an evening walk, Jack Fowler, three years back from a tour in Afghanistan with U.S. Army Special Forces, follows his nose to a body in an abandoned building. The badly decomposed male corpse is unable to be identified. Crime scene investigators can only determine that a single gunshot to the chest was the cause of death.
Given the density of meth labs in the nearby debris-ridden housing project, it’s assumed drugs played a role–that is, until a second body is discovered days later in a similar condition. Both bodies lack teeth, fingerprints, or other identifiable features, and both are found in abandoned buildings along Butcher Road.
A handwritten note found in the pocket of the second victim entangles the Army veteran in the investigation and puts him on a collision course with the killer.
A stench escaped from a vacant house on Butcher Road, stinging the nostrils of Jack Fowler. The home had been boarded up years ago, vines entombing the front porch soon after. Jack rarely paid attention to the decaying building on his daily walks, but the foul smell couldn’t be ignored. After confirming the origin of the odor, he stepped to the far side of the street and stood, thinking.
It was the smell of death. Of that, he was certain. It had been years, but Jack had experienced the distinctive odor before. He’d never forget coming upon a war-torn village in Afghanistan and finding the bodies of Afghan soldiers killed by rocket fire days prior.
Adrift on the breeze was that same smell, a combination of rotting cabbage, sulfur, and feces. It was the putrid perfume produced by decaying flesh.
Tension spread over his body like a hot rash as the vivid memories returned. He took a calming breath as he considered what to do.
Butcher Road was where hope bordered despair. Jack lived in the home he inherited from his father in the middle-class subdivision of Ashley Heights, with its well-maintained brick homes dotting tree-lined streets. The neighboring community of South Mill was constructed in the 60s for the hardworking, lower-income residents of Statesfield, North Carolina. When the furniture and textile factories moved overseas in the 80s and 90s, those living in the modest homes fell on hard times and eventually fled the area.
Many of the abandoned buildings inside South Mill had been leveled. Those remaining were homes to trouble. Meth labs were a common source of income for those still residing in the crumbling community. As the deadly labs were uncovered by state and local police, the meth-poisoned walls of the homes required the buildings to be destroyed, and were often burned. Firefighters tending the smoldering ashes of a South Mill home were a common sight. So much so, news of these occurrences had moved to page three of the local newspaper.
For a moment, Jack thought about ignoring his instincts and writing off the unmistakable stench as a stray cat or dog having succumbed to starvation near the vacant building.
He glanced up and down the street but saw no one to share his concern. Turning toward the setting sun, he knew darkness was an hour away.
Jack took his cell phone from his pocket and called the Statesfield Police Department. Jessica Porter, the department’s dispatcher and assistant to the police chief, answered.
“Jessica, it’s Jack. Is the chief around?”
“Hey, Jack,” she replied, her eyebrows peaking with the surprise of his voice. “He just left for the day, but Al Walker’s here. Want me to put him on?”
“Yeah. I don’t think this can wait.”
Jessica waived the tall, lanky officer to her desk, her hand covering the receiver, “It’s Jack Fowler,” she whispered.
A smirk came to Walker’s face as he reached for the phone. “What’s up, Fowler?”
“I’m pretty sure something or someone is rotting inside a vacant house at the corner of West Oak Street and Butcher Road.”
“You asking me to drive out there and poke through garbage?” he asked, cocking his head in disgust.
“If it’s a body, it’s not gonna smell any better in the morning.”
“Can’t you get close enough to see what it is? I’d hate to drive all the way out there just to uncover a dead possum.”
“Listen, I’ve done my civic duty. As far as I’m concerned, you can stay there and flirt with Jessica all night if you want.”
“Okay. Okay. I’ll be right out.”
Walker handed the phone back to the dispatcher, and the attractive brunette placed it on the desk.
“What was that about?” she asked.
“Your old boyfriend smells something fishy over on Butcher Road.”
Streetlights cast a muddled hue across Butcher Road as Walker’s police cruiser coasted to a stop at the curb. Jack Fowler had moved a safe distance from the stench but approached as the officer stepped from his car.
“Didn’t expect you’d still be here,” Walker said, pulling a flashlight from his belt, shining it at Fowler before turning it toward the dark building.
“I just wanted to make sure you’d show up,” Fowler replied with an emotionless stare.
Walker lifted his nose into the air. “I don’t smell anything.”
“The breeze has died down. Do you have another flashlight?” Fowler asked.
Walker turned and retrieved one from the glove box of his cruiser and handed it to Fowler.
“Come this way,” Fowler said, stepping toward the back of the home. “The odor’s stronger back here.”
With both men shining flashlights along their path, they maneuvered through tall grass and around yard debris, walking with knees high toward the back door.
Windows at the back of the house were boarded shut, but the wooden back door was slightly ajar.
“Man, you weren’t kidding,” Walker said, taking a handkerchief from his pocket and covering his nose and mouth. “Something’s ripe in there.”
Fowler stopped short of the door. “I don’t get paid to search abandoned hovels. You can lead the way,” he said, stepping to the side and extending his arm in the direction of the partially opened door.
Walker paused for a moment and tied his handkerchief around his face before pulling his revolver from its holster. He then reached his flashlight through the gap in in door and angled it around the room.
Whiskey bottles, food wrappers, newspapers and cans littered the kitchen. The rain-soaked drywall on the ceiling had collapsed, and water puddled on the floor from the leaking roof. The doors on the kitchen cabinets hung at all angles, many of them ripped from the hinges with the shelves becoming homes to insects and rodents.
“It’s the police!” Walker shouted through the six-inch crack. “Anyone in there?”
“That was impressive,” Fowler mocked in a low voice. “Did you learn that at the police academy?”
Walker ignored the comment and pushed the rotting door open far enough to squeeze inside.
Directing the light toward the front hallway, the source of the odor became apparent. Extending into the room were the contorted legs of a man lying on damp floor.
“Looks like you were right, Fowler. That ain’t no possum.”
Walker stepped around the man’s feet and into the hallway, followed closely by Fowler.
The male corpse lay on his back, dressed in a blood-stained tee shirt and worn jeans. His face was decayed and sunken, as if a bowling ball had been plunged into his skull. His skin was black and clung to his bones like Saran Wrap melted on a fireplace poker.
Walker bent at his waist and turned away, attempting to gain control of his convulsing stomach. It took him a few seconds before standing.
“You okay?” Fowler asked. “You’re looking a little green around the gills.”
“I’m fine. You need to step outside,” Walker shot back. “This is a crime scene now. I’ll handle it from here.”
“Fine by me,” Fowler said, turning and walking cautiously toward the back door. As he stepped outside, he could hear Walker reporting what they’d found on his cell phone.
Jack moved quickly to the street and took in some fresh air. He thought about waiting for the police chief to arrive. Chief Fred Adkins was an old family friend. He’d worked for his father when Jack Fowler, Sr. headed the Statesville police force years ago. His father died of a heart attack while Jack was serving overseas. Adkins was appointed to fill the position.
Walker’s police car had attracted the attention of several residents. A small group gathered at the curb and had witnessed Jack emerging from the vacant building. A teenager, wearing his baseball hat backwards and jeans falling off his hips, sauntered toward him.
“Hey, man. What’s goin’ down over there?”
“Nothing you need to know about,” Jack replied before turning in the direction of his home and walking away.
He’d wait until tomorrow to get an update from Chief Adkins.